May 6, 2021

How vocational education and training (VET) can help us create a circular economy fit for the future

Circle Economy's latest position paper lays out how VET is a key mechanism to ensure a skilled workforce can thrive in and scale up the circular economy, providing key recommendations for governments, educators, industry and civil society.

We are in a time of transition. In an orchestrated effort to protect livelihoods, reduce resource scarcity and tackle climate change, businesses and civil societies around the world are shifting towards greener, more circular ways of working and living. More and more governments are bringing circular economy policies and green recovery plans into play.  

But do workers have the skills necessary to both scale-up and participate in the economy that is taking shape? Are we being educated in a way that enables us to harness the full potential of the circular economy? Currently, the answer is no. There is a gap between the skills workers have today and skills they will need in the future—and it is widening, as we embrace circular business models and strategies, digitalisation and greening economies, and as populations live (and work) for longer. But if embraced, these new trends can have a positive impact on the labour market: and all require a enhanced focus on education that equips workers with the right skills and emphasises personal development. 

In our latest position paper, Circle Economy's Circular Jobs Initiative (CJI) explores how this skills gap can be narrowed, finding that vocational education and training (VET) is crucial. Without proper vocational up- and re-skilling, we risk not only leaving workers behind but also hampering the transition to a circular economy. And in pursuing a shift where skills overtake job titles as the metric of the labour market and labour mobility and resilience are prioritised, strengthening workers' transversal skills is paramount, the report finds. 

This shines a light on VET as a key mechanism to ensure a skilled workforce that can thrive in and scale up the circular economy. The report provides recommendations for governments, educators, industry and civil society, illustrating how VET can help us build circular capacities, leverage existing skill sets and diversify. While the advice given differs per group, some common threads were uncovered—namely, the importance of collaboration between all entities to both generate new skills needs and co-create training programmes, as well as an emphasis on lifelong learning and development. The crucial role of governments as potential VET advocates, funding providers and policy coordinators is also highlighted. 

Learning from others' experiences

The report vividly illustrates how VET can accelerate the circular transition through the use of case studies, highlighting examples in disparate sectors from construction to agri-food to education. The interdisciplinarity of skills the circular economy calls for is emphasised: a circular construction project, for example, may require more multi-skilled, adaptive operatives than a traditional tradesperson has, representing a gap in the skills needed to push the circular transition forward. This is already being addressed in practice—for example, through the TIP Circulair programme of the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. Leading engineers and professionals mentor young construction apprentices, discussing successes and challenges and jointly improving their circular knowledge—the success of which has reiterated the importance of collaboration, co-creation and action-based learning. 

A similar case has been uncovered in India, where the Department of Agriculture at the Pandit Sundarlal Sharma Central Institute of Vocational Education has launched several agriculture and food processing courses, also teaching communication, self-management and basic digital skills, with the ultimate aim of increasing India’s role in the global food trade while championing sustainable approaches. 

And of course, VET remains highly applicable in the education sector, which is rife with potential to support workers through the green economy transition—making the most of opportunities to facilitate lifelong learning, provide high-quality careers guidance, accommodate the need for interdisciplinary training, and support a systems-level revising of VET. The paper urges the education sector to recognise both its responsibility and its opportunity in moulding a new generation of workers with the knowledge and skills to spark a new economic model—one that is founded on circular principles. 

The time to act is now

Topics related to the circular economy are increasingly emerging in higher education in tandem with its burgeoning popularity—yet the role of VET has, until now, been underappreciated, despite being backed by the Sustainable Development Goals and the International Labour Organization's decent work agenda. The time to change this is now. McKinsey predicts that in the EU alone, up to 18 million workers will need reskilling as we shift towards a low-carbon, circular economy. Only if we manage such large-scale shifts in labour markets with foresight and care, can we achieve the innovation and employment potential of the circular economy.

About the Circular Jobs Initiative

Circle Economy is actively strengthening evidence on the shift in and demand for jobs and skills in a circular economy. Our Circular Jobs Initiative defines and identifies circular jobs, analyses the environment needed to create them and maximise their societal benefits. We work with employers, workers, governments, multilateral organisations, education institutions and research organisations.

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